Rio’s Rooted Music Scene

I couldn’t help indulging in a little dreaming: Why not another spot for live music, right here?

Letter to the Editor, by Tom Moon

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – It was nearly 2AM on an average Wednesday, and the crowds around Lapa were beginning to thin out. I was walking with a friend from New York who is now living in Rio, talking about the mega-events and the opportunities that are opening up in many aspects of life there.

We’d been to the Rio Scenarium and Vaca Atolada and a few other wonderful clubs, and as we looked at the solid, sometimes grand buildings lining the street, I couldn’t help indulging in a little dreaming: Why not another spot for live music, right here? If not a full club with a production stage, why not a coffee shop with a duo in the corner? The possibilities seemed endless.

My friend, who’d worked in the music business in the US, gently reminded me that the challenges associated with the live music economy – high rents, unpredictable income streams, the red tape that can stall the licensing process, etc. – are the same all over the world.

To which I replied: Yes, but this is Brazil. Where seemingly impossible things are becoming real every day. And, crucially, music occupies a unique place – as daily heartbeat and cultural legacy, a shared history that’s integral to most visions of the future.

Here’s the deal: Unless a World Cup or Olympics tourist elects to live in a noise-cancelling bubble, he or she will have a memorable, riveting encounter with music while in Rio. At least one.

It’s almost impossible to avoid; just strolling Copacabana beach in the afternoon, you experience the wonders of samba de roda at one beach kiosk, an incredibly inventive guitarist reworking “Mas Que Nada” at the next. Many of these will not cost money—but they will contribute meaningfully to the overall impression the city leaves on its visitors.

The question, it seems to me, is how to create more of those encounters. I’d come to Brazil specifically to experience music in as many places as I could find it, and I was not disappointed: Every day, I was struck by the technical mastery and deep sensitivity of the musicians – regardless of style or venue.

When I talked with the musicians, many seemed to sing the same refrain: There’s an abundance of creativity and a shortage of places that showcase such creativity, the same imbalance that exists in New York and other big cities.

These players explained that the Brazilian government’s cultural initiatives offer some opportunities for performances. But I kept returning to the private sector. It seems to me the best way to cultivate and expand a scene is through investment – not just financial, but also ideological, a commitment to presenting art as a civilizing act, a way of enhancing the quality of life. The clubs of Rio are already doing this; the musicians I spoke with just long for more such places.

I’m not talking about lavish spending on expensive décor, I’m talking about creating spaces where ordinary people can come face-to-face with extraordinary talent. In this view, a cozy and down-to-earth spot like Vaca Atolada can serve as a model: On my first night in Rio, my friends insisted we stop by, and then had to pry me away three hours later, just when it seemed like the band and its devoted audience were shifting into yet another impossibly high-revving gear.

For an outsider, this was a window into a magic world – where suit-wearing businessmen dance with grandmothers, and young men of the hip-hop generation wear Cartola t-shirts and sing old samba songs.

In that place, I had the distinct sense that while music culture might not add up to mega-event dollars, it’s still a precious thing, arguably more impactful than ticketed events on the lives of both tourists and local residents.

Rio’s music is an awesome, ever-changing, endlessly renewing resource – it doesn’t need to be propped up with lofty grant funded acts of “preservation.” It could, however, benefit from some nurture and care, and the unstoppable entrepreneurial energy that’s on the loose all over the city.

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Tom Moon is a contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and the author of 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.

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